When Whistle-Blowers Go Corporate
We are familiar with the whistle-blower in government. The prototype is Ernest Fitzgerald, the Air Force analyst fired by President Nixon in 1969 for disclosing cost overruns on a transport plane, and reinstated after a 13-year court battle.
William Safire's "Political Dictionary" defines whistle-blower as "a government employee who goes public with complaints of mismanagement or corruption." And, in 1977, the Institute for Policy Studies sponsored a conference on whistle-blowing, seeking to combat government harassment of those who exposed wrongdoing in their agencies.
There have also been anonymous whistle-blowers, using leaks as a form of protest against perceived wrongdoing. To department and agency heads - and the White House - these are particularly infuriating.
A more recent phenomenon is the corporate whistle-blower, who, for one reason or another, is willing to violate the corporate culture of absolute loyalty as the price of success. In the past year, three big companies have faced embarrassment and penalties because of insiders who risked their futures to go outside.
The most recent was Richard Lundwall, human resources coordinator for Texaco Inc. His duties included keeping minutes of executive meetings. To facilitate that, he said, he used a concealed tape recorder. When Mr. Lundwall was let go as a result of downsizing, he turned over some of his tapes to lawyers for employees conducting a discrimination suit against Texaco.
The tapes, at least as first described, exposed what you might call a smoking gun of bigotry. More serious for Texaco was discussion of shredding records that might be used against the company in court. A grand jury has now been convened to look into that.
The company's CEO, Peter Bijur, has apologized for the racist statements. Two officials have been suspended. Whistle-blower Lundwall and another retired official were reportedly stripped of retirement benefits..
Then there is Mark Whiteacre, who was senior executive of Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), the "Supermarket to the World." Mr. Whiteacre agreed to carry a concealed FBI microphone that recorded a conspiracy to fix prices on two agricultural products. ADM ended up pleading guilty and paying an unprecedented antitrust fine of $100 million. Companies have ways of getting back at whistle-blowers. ADM has charged Whiteacre with stealing millions of dollars and suggested he may, at one point, have attempted suicide.
One whistle-blower I came to know is Jeffrey Wigand, who was research director for Brown and Williamson Tobacco in Louisville. He revealed that his bosses knew that cigarettes are addictive and that they lied when they said otherwise. He has been sued for violation of contract in disclosing company secrets. When I last saw him, he was testifying in antitobacco suits and teaching science in a high school. He was named Louisville's "Best Teacher of the Year."
It is hard to say what makes a whistle-blower, with all the risks of excommunication and reprisal. My friend Jeffrey Wigand said he just couldn't live with himself knowing the harm that cigarettes do.
Let me add that the whistle-blower's problem of public responsibility vs. institutional loyalty is not academic for me. In 1975, assigned by CBS to cover CIA misdeeds, I ran into evidence that CBS chairman William Paley had made an agreement with the CIA during the 1950s to provide CBS credentials as cover for CIA spies. I broke that story on the CBS Evening News. After several other disputes, I left CBS, where I had worked for 23 years.
*Daniel Schorr is senior news analyst for National Public Radio.